The southernmost point in the United States is a classic holiday destination full of history and culture, a short hop from Miami
If you want to get tangible proof that you’ve visited the southernmost point of the continental US, just head down to the iconic landmark which says exactly that: a concrete replica of a buoy, at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets. It’s such a popular spot, patrons wait for hours in the hot Florida sun to snap a selfie. Once marked by an old piece of wood, the site was graced with the current monument in 1983. Damaged by the powerful winds of Hurricane Irma in 2017, it was quickly repaired by local artists. The buoy indulges in a touch of poetic license: “90 miles to Cuba,” it reads, five miles short of the actual distance.
Key West is the name of both an island and its contiguous city. Running one and a quarter miles north-south between Key West’s Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic shores, Duval Street is the vibrant and bustling heart of the action, lined with iconic Victorian buildings, cinemas, art galleries, and boutiques. Look out for distinctive wood conch houses, influenced by traditional Bahamian architecture, elevated on posts which allow air to circulate under the ground floor. Duval Street also highlights Key West’s Cuban connections. Starting in the 1860s, Cuban immigration changed Key West’s cultural and economic DNA — hence Duval Street’s popular Cuban restaurants, cigar shops, and Latin dance clubs.
During the “Age of Sail” — from the 16th to the 19th century — the waters around Key West were notorious for shipwrecks, apparently averaging one wreck per week. The island’s Shipwreck Museum brings this history to life, combining historical artefacts with films and live performances, in which actors recount dramatic stories of horrific storms, dangerous predicaments, and daring rescues. The museum is built around a recreated observation tower, from which “wreckers” would watch the shore for any sign of ship debris to salvage — at one time, this was Key West’s mainstay. At the core of the collection are objects salvaged from the wreck of the Isaac Allerton, a cargo vessel that had the misfortune of encountering a hurricane in 1856.
Is it the year-round warm weather or the ocean views that have drawn generations of writers to Key West? The island’s most famous literary resident, of course, was Ernest Hemingway, who lived here from 1931 to 1939. Apparently Hemingway saw 907 Whitehead Street — today a museum and National Historic Landmark — as the ideal place to get his creative juices flowing. The French colonial–style structure with its cast iron balconies is somewhere between modest and luxurious, with extensive gardens and a pool. Hemingway’s study still includes the small, round table where “Papa” wrote his novel To Have and Have Not. Equally celebrated are the house’s approximately 40 feline residents — descended from the author’s own pets, and famous for having six toes, a congenital condition called polydactyly.
A short stroll away, the white-painted “eyebrow” house at 624 White Street served as a modest yet elegant dwelling place for the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who first visited Key West in 1937. The island, its climate and vegetation and landscape, influenced her first book, North and South. Her cottage was recently bought by the Key West Literary Seminar, which plans to restore and preserve it as a museum.
In cities around the world, historic cemeteries have become tourist attractions in their own right. The Key West Cemetery, built in 1847, offers perspectives into the island’s history — as well as its residents’ humour, even in morbid circumstances. You can spot odd yet entertaining epitaphs engraved on the grey headstones. “I told you I was sick” reads one. “I’m resting my eyes” says another. Then there are those which suggest more questions than answers. The Bound Woman — a worn statue of a naked woman with her hands tied behind her back on the grave of Archibald John Sheldon Yates — continues to baffle visitors. To this day, no one knows the significance of the unsettling image.
Out to sea
Almost 70 miles west of Key West, accessible by ferry or seaplane, is a one-of-a-kind maritime park where, for a few hours at least, you can relive your childhood dream of being a pirate or soldier. The Dry Tortugas are a series of islets named — for a large turtle population, and lack of fresh water — by intrepid Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513, and protected since 1992 in a National Park. The largest, Loggerhead Key, stretches 64 acres, while the smallest are mere sandbars. Garden Key is home to Fort Jefferson, a massive but unfinished fortress built in 1826 to protect American shipping in the Gulf of Mexico. The largest brick masonry structure in the Americas — built with 16 million bricks — it was used as a prison before being abandoned in 1906. Visitors are free to explore the fort’s grounds, camp, swim, and snorkel.
24.6° N, 81. 8° W
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